Things You Learn When Building A House

You are stronger than you think. People tell others this when they hear about a cancer diagnosis, or when they start back to school virtually with four kids and a job and mediocre wifi. People don’t tell people embarking on a major home construction project this, because at some point the DIY-ers made a decision to do whatever project it is they’re doing. Building a house isn’t a situation that happens to you, you choose it. So why should anyone offer you comfort or reassurance?

Our mobile den is cozy in winter, spring, thankfully didn’t spend time there in the summer.

I wish someone had told me “You are stronger than you think” at any point during our project, because I really needed to hear it. 

Nonetheless, while building your home you will learn that you are stronger than you think. Emotionally and physically. You will endure a year of displacement and the ultra un-chic side of a semi-nomadic life. You will squeeze your life into this transient state, even though nothing about your usual way of life pairs nicely with this level of flexibility. You are inherently not a #VanLife kind of person. You make plans to make plans. You make lists of lists. Your lists will help you sometimes, like when you’re looking for a mandolin in your storage unit because you refuse to buy another but also you refuse to hand slice potatoes for your sweet potato gratin because you know that won’t turn out right. Your lists will not help you when things go wrong, as they will, at the job site. Your husband will, though. He is excellent at both list making and decision making. Lean on him. Appreciate him. You will wish you yelled at him less, when this is all said and done. 

You are strong enough to endure the anxiety that goes along with a construction loan and all the risks of a construction project. Your worrying nature will be tested every day. You’ll watch the cowboy contractors doing things and wonder years ahead to whether a future buyer will ask questions about why they did it that way. You’ll be hanging ceiling soundproofing yourself, and seize in panic over the fire safety rating. You will find yourself in the middle of protests and unrest in Washington and you will wide-eyed look at your husband and ask, earnestly, if we should take sleeping bags and sleep out front so as to have an eye on your dumpster. Because do we have insurance on a literal dumpster fire? Some of these questions will make your house better. Some of them are just insane. You will not overcome the anxiety, but you will endure it. 

You will learn you are physically stronger than you know when Pella delivers an extra set of French doors and you have to manhandle them around your project. French doors weigh more than 400 pounds apiece. You will haul hundreds – perhaps thousands – of pounds of waste around your house, to the dumpster, and to the dump. You will lift more than 100 pieces of Virginia Bluestone to create the “outdoor living room” of your imagination. You will be more sore than you ever knew possible. 

You will learn that the best sleep comes after the hardest day.

Eating Doritos in a U-Haul in line to get into the Fort Totten Solid Waste Transfer Station (aka the dump). Note: By this point in building I had learned that we both deserved our own bags of chips.

You will learn how kind some of your neighbors are. You will also learn how rude some of them are. Focus on the nice ones. Invite them over to see your home when it’s finished. Pretend the bad apples don’t exist. Be proud of your husband when he defends your contractors against the bad apple neighbors.

You will learn how to do a lot of things you may never need to know again. You will learn how to hang tile, how to apply grout, how to insulate for sound versus heat, how to wire outlets and switches, how to install a French drain, how to prepare wood for stain and polyurethane, how to get a door so shiny you can see yourself in it, how to paint ceilings (and how not to paint ceilings). You will learn what you aren’t good at. You will start to learn how to balance your talents and your money. This will change constantly throughout the project, as you manage both anxiety, the budget and the timeline. 

You will learn a lot about what happens behind the walls of houses. After you finish, you will find yourself in Vail on your hands and knees trying to figure out how a hearthstone is floating. You will learn that some of this stuff is actually pretty interesting. Other parts, you will learn that you’re just thankful they work. 

You will learn the men who work on your home are great at what they do. You will be impressed by how beautifully (and how quickly) some of the craftsmen move. You will be even more impressed by their patience and willingness to share. When Arturo the electrician sees you struggling to install a dryer vent, he won’t first offer to do it for you and charge you, instead he’ll coach you through it. When Jose sees you really do intend to wire all 130-some outlet boxes yourself, he will get down on the ground and show you how to do it faster and more safely. You will watch Angel and Dee strategize with Matt, and you will be simultaneously impressed by their patience and Matt’s knowledge. It will be a joy to watch, so take a deep breath and don’t lament, “I’m hungry! Let’s go.”

You will learn your stomach dictates your mood. You’ve always known this, but when you are working at a construction site and you don’t pack snacks, you really appreciate it’s true. You will learn how fast Sprig & Sprout can make a crispy chicken banh mi, and you will be so thankful that it’s exactly the same amount of time it takes to walk there. 

You will learn where all the best public bathrooms are in the neighborhood. You will start to overcome your long-held guilt over using a bathroom if you don’t buy something. 

You will learn about dirt – both how to live with it and how to combat it. For many months, you will simultaneously be accepting the dirt and fighting it, because that’s the only way to keep a job site safe. You will never learn whether the jet vac Matt swore by worked any better than the broom you swore by. You will eventually learn to tolerate the jet vac noise, because four hands are so much better than two. You will learn that sometimes extreme methods are necessary, and you’ll sometimes use the gas-powered leaf blower on dust. It won’t be pretty, but it will work, like so many things in life.

You will learn that you are a team, but your team does best when goals are clearly stated. Your team – you, Matt and Cappie – can plow through a list over the weekend like nobody else. You will learn how to levelset, after a few too many weekends of trying to do a little too much (did you know one person is physically capable of painting 3500-some square feet of ceilings in one weekend? Did you know this person might not be able to walk after doing so?)

You will learn that your home is wherever these two are. You will realize this first when you’re sitting in your car (dubbed “The Mobile Den”) housing a chicken cheesesteak, covered in dirt and dust, and rather than feeling pathetic that you’re eating fast food in your car because you don’t have a home, you’re happy because you’re together. Matt will continue to refer to your car as a Mobile Den, which is really just another way of saying “Home is where your heart is.” So it turns out, cross stitch pillows really are always right. 

You will learn so much. You will have a home at the end of this that you will be so proud of. 

So good luck, DIY Heroes. You are stronger than you think.

Sharing our home with family for the first time was the greatest day of the year.


Alicia Amling View All →

Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.

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